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Street activism



HALLA BOL: Artistes like Rabbi Shergill (centre) and dastangos Danish Husain and Mahmood Farooqui (below) joined protestors at the Munirka bus stand for a heartfelt tribute to the victimised girl

Demonstrations against the heinous gang-rape of 23-year-old Nirbhaya, have resulted in a more forceful creative voice on the streets of Delhi.

Heated manifestoes that stoke a movement sometimes express themselves in the grace of a nazm, the fierce depths of a song, or a play bereft of props but rich in oratory. The collective reaction to the gang rape of a 23-year-old girl inside a moving bus, and her subsequent death, has risen above street activism to find a more creative voice.

"Jiya mora ghabaraye babul/ Bin bole raha na jaye/ Babul mori itni araj sun lijo/ Mohe lohar ke ghar de dijo/ Jo mori janjeere pighlaye. (I am frightened but I can't stay quiet anymore. Father, I have but one wish/ Marry me to a blacksmith /For he can melt the shackles that bind me). " This was how Prasoon Joshi chose to articulate his agony at Juhu Beach in Mumbai. "Some shout and scream;my outcry is my poetry, " he says.

When Sara Shagufta of Karachi, a contemporary of Amrita Pritam, wrote in Urdu: Kya aurat ka badan se zyada koi watan nahin hota? (Does a woman's domain not extend beyond her body?), she was expressing a feeling that hasn't aged or grown irrelevant with time. A lyrical protest also thawed the cold streets of Delhi on December 31, when rhymesters, musicians and actors gathered at the Munirka bus stand for a heartfelt tribute to the country's anonymous daughter. Madan Gopal Singh, composer, singer and film theorist, sang snippets from the immoral love story Heer Ranjha.

Inspired by the 16th century Sufi poet Shah Hussian, as well as 20th century German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Singh discusses an intermingling of influences that can create a potent culture of resistance. He tells of a childhood spent within the precincts of "the gurudwara culture - a community space where we would sing the poetry of Muslim Sufi saints as well as those of Bengal, Orissa, Assam". Singh, who also sang the works of Brecht in Punjabi for the crowd at Munirka, believes that the arts are a great medium for protest and critique.

Noor Jehan and Iqbal Bano, says the singer, were early activists who sang the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz in the years when it was banned. "They stood in the middle of Lahore and sang his poems. "

Rabbi Shergill, who also performed at the venue, speaks of 17th century poetsphilosophers like Baba Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah as abiding influences. "Language and music are the glue that holds a movement together, " he says.

Street theatre, often an amplified negotiation with a cynical state, also brings people out of their homes. The plays are usually followed by impassioned discussions between the performers and the audience. Director Arvind Gaur's Asmita Theatre Group performed the play Dastak at India Gate, Munirka as well as within the gated colonies to draw people's attention to their own prejudices. Discussing the reaction to these performances that relied heavily on the actors' craft, he says, "There was no applause. People were silent. They were angry with the system. "

A lot of vibrant theatrical activism in the country still owes its existence to Safdar Hashmi. Attacked and killed during the performance of Halla Bol in 1989, his legacy of livewire resistance to a authoritarianism continues to inspire the young. Shilpi Marwaha, a 23-year-old actor with the Asmita Theatre Group, says she can now perform undaunted by the imminence of a lathi charge: "We usually get into trouble with the cops;they see our black kurtas and blue jeans and know that we will collect a mob. But it's the only way in which we can have a dialogue with the people. "

Diksha Lamba, another protest performer, is a part of pandies' theatre group (the 'p' is deliberately lower case since the root of the word lies in the derogatory manner in which the British referred to the rebels led by Mangal Pandey). "I don't know how else to do theatre that really communicates, " says the 25-year-old Lamba. The group performed an episode from the play, Cleansing. Written by founder and artistic director Sanjay Kumar, the piece narrates the story of the rape of a minor Muslim girl, in a Hindu household. "Rape is about all those institutions that support it, " says Kumar, "Communalism is one, marriage and family can also be rape-friendly institutions. "

Yet another narrative that defied the rigours of a clear context was Dastan-e-Sedition, performed by dastangos Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain. A revival of the ancient, oral tradition of Urdu storytelling, Dastangoi, this particular piece was originally performed to dramatise the fabricated case against activist Dr Binayak Sen. The dastangos chose to perform it for the crowd at the Munirka bus stand, because it was a satirical comment on a repressive government and an anarchic police. Says Mahmood Farooqui, director of the piece: "No State is perfect. Our job is to keep it on its toes, so that it responds. As a citizenry, we have to become more aware of our rights. " A citizen's dastaan, then, is the tale of everyday negotiations with the state.

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